Broadway in 2018: male playwrights and movies dominate patchy year

Hollywood’s influence continued to curb the rise of original shows and increase the movie-to-stage adaptations while female writers struggled to break through

In 2018, on Broadway, the beat went on. And on and on. Most of the shows were revivals or new works barely altered from the films that inspired them. Politics were in evidence this year and when they did arrive, they had more to do with questions of power, gender, sexuality and identity inspired by the #MeToo movement. Not that #MeToo meant a real upswing in plays written or directed by women. The Great White Way continues to be very white and very male.

One new play tackled the subject of female empowerment with the forthrightness of a rugby maneuver, though Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet sacrificed a meaningful conversation about life as a woman artist, substituting extraneous plot lines about lovers and sons, ginning up conflict when the subject of a woman in her mid-50s taking on the most famous role in English language theater ought to have been drama enough.

The Cher Show organized itself toward a triumph of female self-actualization and strategically placed sequins. Unlike the numbers voiced by lead Cher stand-in Stephanie J Block, most of these gestures rang false. Daniel Sullivan’s Saint Joan seemed like another attempt to join the conversation, but its message was muted by Condola Rashad’s sunny performance. Perversely, Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men, which included no women or people of color inside the play itself, spoke directly to the culture of entitlement and privilege that encourages abuses of power.

Typically, the season was glutted with revivals, some of which tried to reconcile contemporary thinking with complicated works of art created in earlier decades. And some of which didn’t. Bartlett Sher’s My Fair Lady, starring a luminous and fiery Lauren Ambrose, went back to Shaw’s original to find an ending that allowed Eliza her independence. While Jack O’Brien’s Carousel rethought Julie Jordan, a lovely Jessie Mueller, and Billy Bigelow as an interracial couple and cut a line or two, it never really tried to find a way through the show’s somewhat sympathetic portrayal of domestic violence.

Glenda Jackson in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women
Glenda Jackson in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe

Though there were very few plays and musicals by women, many offered indelible roles for actresses. In Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, Glenda Jackson was imposing, faltering and utterly extraordinary. She was matched by Elaine May, giving a shattering performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery. Playing a West Village bohemian succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease, May embedded so deeply in the character that it was almost impossible to disentangle actress from role. Joan Allen, as her overextended daughter, gave a vigorously moving performance. (Lonergan was also represented on Broadway by Trip Cullman’s revival of his funny, tortured Lobby Hero, anchored by Brian Tyree Henry’s commanding and layered turn.)

McTeer was thrilling and imperious as Sarah Bernhardt – the play could barely contain her. And Kerry Washington’s performance, often effortful and yet deeply moving, elevated the mediocre American Son. Mercedes Ruehl and Denise Gough, as women in the otherwise mostly male revivals of Torch Song and Angels in America, gave ferocious performances, Ruehl’s impeccably focused and Gough’s beautifully untidy.

Still most of the major works were boys’ own stories, from Marianne Elliott’s devastating and incisive Angels revival to Moises Kaufman’s endearing, poignant Torch Song to Joe Mantello’s starry, sometimes complacent The Boys in the Band, to the revival of The Iceman Cometh led by a distinctly unchilly Denzel Washington to the schlocky comedy of Getting’ the band Back Together. (Do girls get to play? Nope.) If the execrable Pretty Woman seems like a story of a prostitute with a magical vagina, it’s really the story of a corporate raider made to feel. Via blowjob. Father-son dynamics undergirded the absolutely wondrous stage magic of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the clacking comedy The Nap, which brought snooker to Broadway. Men trying to bind fraying communities could be seen in Jez Butterworth’s anguished family play The Ferryman and in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels as the principled southern lawyer Atticus Finch.

The cast of Mean Girls on Broadway
The cast of Mean Girls on Broadway. Photograph: Joan Marcus

Disney’s presence on Broadway was strengthened by Frozen’s ice tendrils, notable mostly for a few quick changes and a very nimble reindeer. Slightly older kids could enjoy Mean Girls, another musical too little changed from its movie raw material, but boosted by Tina Fey’s book, with a handful of clever updates, and the queen bees and wannabees in its cast. At least these musicals had original scores. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and The Cher Show were content with the jukebox form. So were Head Over Heels and Escape from Margaritaville, the former spiritedly goofy, the latter cringingly awful. The only really successful new musical, jukebox or otherwise, was The Prom, a slightly dopey, but unfailingly sweet-natured and often clever story of a bunch of Broadway has-beens who descend on a midwestern town and wreak high-kicking havoc.

The season was also peppered with oddities, such as John Lithgow’s milquetoast solo Stories by Heart, the inexplicable Rocktopia and King Kong, a wholly cynical exercise in whether or not you could build a Broadway musical around the body of a giant, angry ape. (Not really, though the puppetry is thrilling.) Another angry male took center stage in Ivo van Hove’s Network, starring Bryan Cranston and his undershirt as an unhinged anchorman. Facts, fiction and fake news were also the subject of Lifespan of a Fact, based on a seven-year ordeal to assure the accuracy of a single article – oh, sorry, essay – with Daniel Radcliffe as the beleaguered factchecker. Where’s a copy-editing spell when you need one?


Alexis Soloski

The GuardianTramp

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